Long-lasting heterosexual marriage is only one manifestation of a diverse range of intimate relationships now occurring in later life. As discussed more fully in Chapter One, the relationships that ageing adults construct are increasingly likely to reflect more fluid forms of attachment that challenge traditional notions of family life. As Huyck (2001) specifies, these include remarriage, cohabitation, living apart together, affairs and absent relationships. Moreover, divorce is increasingly common among those people married for two, three or more decades, a trend that is set to continue (Arber et al, 2003). Consequently, a higher proportion of older adults are likely to experience more than one marriage across the lifecourse, or indeed have a combination of relationship forms, which may or may not include marriage. In the context of these more varied and flexible forms of family practice, negotiating relationships is likely to be undertaken in a more reflexive manner, responding to individualised circumstances and contexts, rather than tightly prescribed traditional frames of reference.
Currently, however, marriage remains the dominant form of heterosexual partnership, especially for those in later old age who have remained in longterm relationships (Askham et al, 2007). Indeed, for men and women who were courting and making decisions to marry in the post-Second World War period, marriage was the only form of committed union accorded legitimacy. In an era that has been described as aggressively heterosexual, marriage conferred authority and supremacy on an exclusive sexual relationship between one man and one woman, making all other forms of intimacy appear, at best, inferior and, at worst, deviant (Holden, 2007). Moreover, while there was greater emphasis placed on the notion of ‘companionate marriage’ than in the first half of the 20th century, this did not reflect an aspiration of equality between spouses. Rather, as Finch and Summerfield (1991: 30) comment, cultural expectations invoked a highly gendered division of labour, with women as wives who ‘were to be more comradely, and might be permitted to have outside interests, but were also to be better mothers of larger families, better sexual partners and better home makers’.
Conversely, the cultural context that informed non-heterosexual older men's and women's experiences of relationship formation at this time was fundamentally influenced by powerful anti-homosexual sentiment.